The sermon for week November 27, 2011
Fear of the Future
2011 was a banner year for end-of-the-world predictions. The end of the world was supposed to happen at least 3 times that I know of. All of this must be gearing up for 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar which many believe is also the end of the world.
David’s sermon last week touched on an alternative to end time theologies. I agree with what he had to say and hope to continue his theme. I have struggled with end time theologies as well. They make no sense to me. So I try to understand the motives behind these theologies.
Churches that adhere to end time theologies are big on “born again experiences” repenting from how you have been living and giving your life over into the church community’s hands. From then on you are to believe as they do, each and every doctrine, how they interpret the Bible as a sort of crystal ball. They ask you to change the language you use, the movies and music you enjoy. They seek to become like Jesus in only one way: They “crucify themselves between two thieves- regret for the past and fear of the future.” (Oursler) In such a theology, I see little to no room for the present.
Yet when I read passages like the ones today, all I see is the present. My New Testament professor in seminary Greg Carey is an expert in apocalyptic literature like the passages we read today. He states that apocalyptic literature is more about the present circumstances in which the passage was written than it is about some future prediction.
For example: The Isaiah passage was composed sometime after the Babylonian conquest. The Israelites are in exile, they are disoriented, their temple lies in ruins, and they are no longer in the land that was promised to their ancestors.
As author Bruce Epperly wrote, “I read Isaiah’s words as an existential confession rather than a theological treatise. It feels to Isaiah like our pain must be God’s doing: God must be punishing us, withdrawing God’s presence, because we have gone astray. God is angry at us and God’s anger takes the form of apparent abandonment. Isaiah and his community are going through a severe case of separation anxiety” (Epperly). They hope that God will come back in a big way and tear open the heavens, and they will repent of whatever they have done.
It is the same with Mark. Some biblical scholars take the view that Mark was composed during the Roman-Jewish War around 66-70, probably toward the end of that period, or shortly thereafter. In the early part of the war, the Jews had had some success. By AD 68, however, 60,000 Roman soldiers had crushed the Jewish revolt on the coast and in the north.
It was not only a time of military defense, but also profound religious fanaticism. The Jewish radicals of Jerusalem had high expectations for the coming of the messiah who would appear and rally the people to military victory over the hated Romans. One of the agendas of Mark's gospel is to discourage the non-violent followers of the Jesus movement from succumbing to pressure to join up with the radical militants (progressive involvement).
So I find it especially ironic that passages like the Mark and Isaiah ones and other apocalyptic literature have launched a thousand violent theological stances. As David pointed out last week that fundamentalist Pastor Hagee preaches about the final battle and rivers of blood and conflict and general awfulness instead of the Messianic Banquet where all are gathered around the table.
So what’s the motivation behind such theologies?
I believe it stems from a very natural place: namely, fear of the future.
There are lots of reasons to fear the future. I asked my friends on Facebook why people fear the future and here are some replies:
• [People fear the future because]Somehow (through experience? lack of faith?) we come to expect that the unknown will be worse than what we're currently going through or accustomed to.
• People are uncomfortable with what they are unfamiliar with, and that discomfort unfortunately at times manifests in the form of hatred and prejudice.
• [People fear the future because] if they don't know what is coming, they won't know how to act. If they are wrong on their action(s), it brings shame, regret, earned criticism, and embarrassment. 4 of the worst feelings.
• Because we might lose control.
And some were too scared to even venture a guess!
The future is unknown and mysterious and many people have little to no tolerance for the unknown, the ambiguous, the mysterious. When presented with the unknown, we greet it with skepticism and pessimism. We often can take the bad and run with it: Our planet is in trouble. We see signs of destruction, of dying species and collapsing glaciers, and fear a random collision with a meteor that will alter our planet forever and put an end to the human enterprise.
Yet in the Mark and Isaiah passages, there is both terror and fulfillment. Mark sees the suffering as the birth pains of new creation. Sure the world will end one day, but no one knows when, not even Jesus. So live your life and appreciate that God has never left you, is with you now, and will be within you in the future.
Advent is the time that Isaiah waited for, God is Immanuel: God-with-us. God is wholly here in this present place and time. Those who wait for some future return of Jesus miss Jesus in their midst in the here and now. They miss all the Matthew 25 moments: they miss Jesus in the hungry, the poor, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. Imagine how much money could have been donated to charity instead of taking out billboards announcing the end of the world?!
Jesus tells his disciples not to predict when he will return, but instead look for him in one another. Live like he is just ready to walk in the door. That means every moment is a call to transformation. Every moment, whether at the dinner table, working on your laptop, answering e-mail, or praying at a church meeting, is a moment of encountering divine possibility. No need to look into the future, for God is fully present in the here and now. The future will take care of itself. Consider the lilies, the sparrows, and the ravens. And it’ll be a better future for those who are present in the present. We are called to serve and love those who are around us NOW. The possibilities for transformation are ever-present for those who seek to be awake to the divine. Any moment can be transforming and transfiguring!
I had on such moment last week when Eve lost her pumpkin hat that was lovingly knitted by church members. We were in a department store. I was more the a little stressed out and not in my best parenting mode. I was frustrated at Eve as Kate and I strive to teach her to keep track of her hats and toys. I huffed and puffed around the store with Eve asking me, “Papa, are you happy?” I asked “No, I want to find your hat.” Each time. A kind lady found the hat and returned it to us. Eve thanked the lady and then asked me: “Papa, are you happy now?” I was floored. Tears came to my eyes. I was being cared for by my toddler and here I thought it was the other way around. That was a transforming moment and a transfiguring moment where the divine shone through the world in the words of my daughter.
Yet while I can stand here and state that these “end time” people can miss the Still-Speaking-Ever-Present-God, I can too. In a season that is gearing us up to shop, to rush around from holiday event to holiday event, and send out all our Christmas cards, God would be easy to miss. In a world of instant gratification, Advent teaches us that good things come to those who wait. God’s timeline is a little different from ours, and the results aren’t immediate.
Results that aren’t immediate are a hard-sell in a culture such as ours that values immediate results and gratification. Yet the state of our economics, politics, and pretty much everything else should point us to the lesson of Advent: waiting. Advent is about expectant waiting for a gift already given. Jesus is God’s free gift of grace given to the world; a world that had to wait a long time for it and even now tries to bind it up in red-tape and put a lot of qualifiers on it. Jesus is the gift, Jesus is the grace of God, given to all period: end of story. It is grace that will meet us around the great banquet table, as it is grace that calls us to the table in the first place.
“Grace is,” as Robert Capon put it, “the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its [merry music] to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ear.”
As disciples of the table, we will not fret about the future, nor will we worry ourselves with the past. We are called to give love and nurture one another. We are to be stable disciples of grace, service, and love for a hurting world.
We are to constantly point to God in our midst. And when the world does end, a new one will emerge far better and we will all be seated around the Messianic banquet table. Our great-grandparents and our great-grand children will all be there and we will sing the songs of redemption and we will look upon the face of God and know love. AMEN.
Capon, Robert. Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace.
Copenhaver, Martin. Mark 13:24-37, Homiletical Perspective: Feasting on the Word. Pages 20-25
Daniel, Lillian. Mark 13:24-37, Pastoral Perspective: Feasting on the Word. Pages 20-24
De Jong, Patricia. Isaiah 64:1-9, Pastoral Perspective: Feasting on the Word. Pages 2-6
Epperly, Bruce. Process and faith lectionary commentary
Oursler, Fulton. Quote found on BrainyQuote
Perkins, Pheme. The Gospel of Mark New Interpreters Bible Volume VIII. Pages 691-692
Progressive Involvement post: